Sports
3:09 am
Thu February 13, 2014

In Front Of A Home Crowd, Russia Has Hockey History On Its Mind

Originally published on Thu February 13, 2014 1:07 pm

There is a weird contradiction in Olympic hockey: On one hand, these professional players from the NHL arrive in a small town like movie stars.

They show up a week late, trailed by TV cameras and Russians begging for autographs.

And then they have to go back to basics. Early Thursday, members of Team USA were on the ice, doing the kind of simple drills that you'd see in a peewee hockey league.

Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers was practicing his passes with Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes. For these stars, who have been busy all winter in the NHL, they have to start over, with unfamiliar teammates, a new coach — and on an Olympic ice rink that is larger than the one they play on at home.

Sergey Krabu, a hockey commentator on Russian TV, says that even though Team USA has had very little practice, they look strong: "Very mobile. Very good goalies. Young team — I would say hungry."

But the great thing about Olympic hockey, he says, is that you never know.

Ever since the Olympics allowed in professional NHL players, it's changed the calculus. The winner is the team that has the most talent, that can learn to work together in the fewest possible games.

Team USA coach Dan Bylsma knows this. Normally the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he says they didn't simply choose all the best scorers in the NHL — they chose guys who have worked together before, and who matched up well.

"We thought we could be a good skating team — we needed to be a good skating team on the bigger ice surface," he says. "We thought we could be a smart, intelligent team."

It's not all brains. Team USA does have some great physical talent. Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild is the team captain. Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks is the go-to guy.

But the team doesn't have as many great players as the Canadians. How could it?

"Canada has the best team here," says Krabu. "The best players, bigger, more physical, almost no weak points about the team."

The joke going around Sochi is that if you rounded up all the Canadian players who didn't make the Olympic team, they would probably medal also.

But Krabu says Canada isn't the only threat to the U.S. Sweden, for instance, works better as a unit.

"They have common background," he says. "They have the same hockey education, so they know how to play with each other."

And what about Krabu's home team, the Russians? He says there is a tremendous pressure to win here.

"One thing that could work for the team, and against the team: You can handle pressure, and it may help you, like it help[ed] Canadians in Vancouver. And on the other hand, if you do not handle it properly, it may destroy you."

The most pressure is on the shoulders of Team Russia's Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals player is the single biggest thing in Sochi. His face is on every Coca-Cola billboard and ad — and you know Coca-Cola doesn't skimp on the ad budget.

He stared down at reporters at a news conference with his tough face, his trademark missing tooth and his booming voice, as translated by a young woman: "We understand what we have to do, and we will fight for the results in every match."

That sounds less intimidating in translation. But listening to Ovechkin, you can tell how much Team Russia is animated by history. They talk constantly of the 1980 Miracle on Ice upset, when they were beaten by Team USA. And their loss four years ago in Vancouver.

"When we lost to the Canadians," Ovechkin said, "it was a big blow to us. It was a big failure. It was a big blow to everyone in Russia."

And the fans want revenge. Already the Russian hockey games are the hottest ticket in Sochi. And the first big moment: Russia vs. Team USA on Saturday.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

At the Winter Olympics, hockey is about to take over the spotlight. The men's tournament started yesterday. Team USA and the Russians have games today and that means that the richest and most famous hockey players in the world find themselves on unfamiliar ice with brand new teammates. NPR's Robert Smith has a preview.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: There is this weird contradiction in Olympic hockey. On the one hand, these professional players from the NHL arrive in this small town like movie stars. They show up a week late trailed by TV cameras, Russians begging for autographs, and then they have to go back to basics. Early this morning, members of Team USA were on the ice doing the kind of simple drills you'd expect to see in a pee-wee hockey league.

Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers was practicing his passes over and over with Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes. For these stars who have been busy all winter long in the NHL, they've got to start over. Unfamiliar teammates, new coach, on an Olympic ice rink that is larger than the one they play on at home. Sergei Crabbou(ph) is a hockey commentator on Russian TV and he says even though Team USA has had very little practice, they look pretty good.

SERGEI CRABBOU: Very mobile, very good goalies, young team, and I would say hungry.

SMITH: The great thing about Olympic hockey, he says, is you never know. Ever since the Olympics allowed in professional NHL players, it's changed the calculus. The winner is the team that has the most talent that can learn to work together in the fewest possible games. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma knows this. He's normally the coach of the Pittsburg Penguins and he says they didn't simply choose all the best scorers in the NHL.

They chose guys who have worked together before, that match up well.

DAN BYLSMA: We thought we could be a good skating team. We needed to be a good skating team on the bigger ice surface. We thought we could be a smart, intelligent team.

SMITH: It's not all brains. Team USA does have some great physical talent. Zach Parise from the Minnesota Wild is the team captain. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks, is the go-to guy. But the team doesn't have as many great players as the Canadians. I mean, how could they?

CRABBOU: Canada has the best team here, the best players, bigger, more physical, almost no weak points about the team.

SMITH: That's Sergei Crabbou again. The joke going around Sochi is that if you rounded up all the Canadian players that didn't make the Olympic team, they would probably medal also. But Crabbou says Canada isn't the only threat to the U.S. Sweden, for instance, works better as a unit.

CRABBOU: They have common background. They have the same hockey education so they know how to play with each other.

SMITH: A Swede always knows how to pass to another Swede.

CRABBOU: Yeah, I would say so.

SMITH: And what about the home team? What about the Russians? Crabbou says there is tremendous pressure to win here.

CRABBOU: One thing that could work for the team and against the team, you can handle pressure and it may help you, like it helped Canadians in Vancouver, and on the other hand, if you do not handle it properly, it may destroy you.

SMITH: The most pressure is on the shoulders of Team Russia's Alexander Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals player is the single biggest thing here in Sochi. His face is on every Coca-Cola billboard and ad and you know Coca-Cola does not skimp on the ad budget. He started down at reporters at a press conference with his tough face, his trademark missing tooth, his booming voice, as translated by a young female Russian...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We understand what we have to do and we will fight for the results in every match.

SMITH: I know that sounds less intimidating in translation, but listening to Ovechkin, you can tell how much Team Russia is animated by history. They talk constantly of the 1980 miracle on ice upset when they were beaten by Team USA, and their loss four years ago in Vancouver. Once again, try to imagine this as spoken by a 6'3" tough guy.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: When we lost to the Canadians, it was a big blow to us. It was a big failure. It was a big blow to everyone in Russia.

SMITH: And the fans want revenge. Already the Russia hockey games are the hottest ticket in Sochi. And the first big moment? Russia versus Team USA this Saturday. Robert Smith, NPR News, Sochi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program